Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2019-08-06 05:41:03 Published on Aug 06, 2019
Imposition of wider restrictions on technology exports to the other
Japan-S Korea rift worsens

Is the US-Japan Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy coming apart from the very top? Unnoticed in India, and not commented on by our Foreign Ministry officials, is the serious crisis that has erupted between South Korea and Japan that is escalating by the day.

Both countries are important friends of India and have a major economic presence in the country in a range of areas relating to technology. They are also key military allies of the US and as such part of its ‘security network’ aimed at containing China.

It began with the Japanese imposing restrictions on three key products and has now escalated to both countries declaring that they will impose a wider set of restrictions on technology exports to the other.

At the root of the problem lies the old issue of forced labour and sexual slavery during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945. South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 reopened what Tokyo thought was a closed issue after the agreement of 1965 through which South Korea had been given $500 million in financial aid.

In early July, Japan said it would restrict the exports of three critical materials needed in the manufacture of semiconductors and display panels for smartphones and TVs. Japan said this was aimed at preventing their illegal diversion to North Korea, but this was clearly aimed at the court decisions relating to forced labour.

Instead of using his electoral victory in the Upper House elections in July to get over the quarrel, Abe doubled down on the confrontation and has now revoked South Korea’s preferential status as a trusted trade partner. In early August, Abe’s Cabinet passed an order excluding South Korea from a ‘white list’ of 27 countries that are able to buy Japanese products that could be diverted for military use. Both these measures would have a severe effect on South Korea’s world-class technology industry. Semiconductors made in South Korea are used in Chinese and Japanese branded smartphones and displays are used by iPhones and TV sets of various brands.

In turn, Seoul removed Japan from its own list of preferential trade partners relating to strategic materials management which comprise of Japan and 28 other countries.

An anti-Japanese movement has emerged in South Korea where consumers have organised a boycott of Japanese products and services. Its leaders have been invoking nationalistic rhetoric to declare that they would not allow Japan to defeat the country again.

Even while the two squabbled, Russian and Chinese jets carried out their first joint patrol in the airspace near an island that is contested between South Korea and Japan. That same week, North Korea conducted a test of short-range missiles as a warning to the South, accusing it of acquiring new weapons like the F-35 fighter and planning military exercises.

And what of the US? Washington is the security provider to its military allies Japan and South Korea and ought to be the go-to country to resolve issues between them. But Washington seems to be strangely disinterested. Trump says he would act if both asked him to do so, and Secretary of State Pompeo made a perfunctory effort at mediation at an ASEAN meeting last week.

In all this mess, the US is creating its own complications and seems to be more focused and getting Tokyo and Seoul to shell out more money to pay for the non-personnel costs of stationing American forces in their country.

According to a report, the US has sought a five-fold increase in Tokyo’s contribution,  a figure that could actually exceed the cost of stationing the forces in the first place. The US is also putting the squeeze on the Koreans. It wants South Korea to provide $5 billion for stationing American troops in the country, a steep hike of over $4 billion from the $920 million that the Koreans currently pay.

In recent weeks, the bemused South Koreans and Japanese have been confronted with a situation where a US President not just condones a set of missile tests conducted by North Korea in violation of UN sanctions, but says everything is going fine in his dealings with Kim Jong-un.

The US is worried now that the two may cancel an intelligence-sharing agreement they reached in 2016. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) aids three-way intelligence sharing and is important for the US and its security posture in the region.

Just by the way, the US has also opened up another front with the South Koreans and the Japanese in the Persian Gulf. After ratcheting up tensions with Iran, it has been pushing them to join the naval coalition to safeguard their oil supplies.

The bigger question perhaps is whether Trump himself has bought into the FOIP. By his words and deeds it would seem that he is not particularly interested in fulfilling the traditional American role of a global leader, leave alone a security provider. Sure American officials like Mike Pompeo periodically tour Asia and speak about the importance of the Indo-Pacific strategy. But their boss is following his own drum and they are doing little when one of its principal architects, Shinzo Abe has adopted a course that will undermine it.

Both countries are important partners of India. Japan is our principal source of official development assistance and the technology firms of both countries are important for our consumers, as well as any putative ‘Make in India’ strategy.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

Read More +